Simon Reynolds In Conversation: Talking Totally Wired
, February 17th, 2009 11:31
The Quietus speaks to Simon Reynolds about his new book Totally Wired, a companion piece to post punk bible Rip It Up And Start Again
It's not often during a book launch talk that as a member of the audience you get harangued by one of the panel - but that's what happened at Sunday evening's panel discussion to accompany the release of Simon Reynold's Totally Wired, a collection of interviews and essays to compliment the essential post punk tome Rip It Up And Start Again. Former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine picked out members of the audience and demanded of them why, exactly, the wanted to spend their Sunday evening listening to two hours of conversation between Reynolds, herself, former Scritti Politti drummer Tom Morley, Wire's Colin Newman and last-minute addition Ana da Silva of the Raincoats.
While Albertine might seem perplexed, even aggressively so, that we've bothered to forgo Dancing on Ice: The Skate Off to attend, her attitude is perhaps mistaken. For tonight's talk is an engaging and entertaining discussion on the post punk period and its legacy. So not only do we learn (as does Colin Newman, for the first time) that Wire's Graham Lewis was known as "the bulge" at art college, but also of the strict dogma of punk, and how that movement created a catalyst to what came later. Interestingly, there's a tangible tension between Morley and Albertine on one hand, and Newman on the other - when he says "the punks hated Wire", Morley and Albertine exchange a knowing smile. Whatever Albertine's reservations, the subjects explored tonight show that the late 70s and early 80s were a time when creative and cultural tensions were ripe for, as Reynolds so aptly referenced in the title to Rip It Up...
A few weeks ago, Quietus editor John Doran called up Simon Reynolds for a discussion about Totally Wired and the post punk period in general. Here is what they talked about:
In the book there is a wide spread of names; it would be fair to say that it would keep the casual reader or the aficionado interested. Out of all the interviews that you did, who did you consider the biggest coup?
SR: "I don't know if there was a coup really, it was really cool to finally get hold of Keith Levene [PiL] who is a difficult person to track down. I talked to Green [Gartside] a long time ago when he did one of his 80s records and, I don't know, I think he was going through a difficult period or something but we didn't get on but when I met him the second time I was just finishing Rip It Up . . . so I was just able to squeeze a couple of pieces of quotes in, he was really charming and so fascinating and such an eloquent person. I guess maybe he'd matured a bit; he was less brittle than when I interviewed him the first time. It was also gratifying that he said at a couple of points that I was more or less correct in my analysis of certain things, which is always, y'know, reassuring! It's reassuring, especially when it comes to lyrics because I'm not always a great interpreter of lyrics. I don't know really . . . there were interviews that I was really pleased to put in, like the one with Linder Sterling [Ludus]. Because with Rip It Up . . . I had to leave stuff out for reasons of readability so she had been included more in terms of Howard Devoto and I didn't really have anything on Ludus, but she's such an interesting figure that I was really happy to have her whole story and it's good to have a feminist voice in there and someone who was an artist and not just an interesting musician. She had a take on Manchester which was different to the standard story which is about Factory and The Fall which I ended up replicating a little bit out of necessity in Rip It Up . . . I don't know about in terms of my entire existence as a writer. I don't know who I'd say was a coup. The guys in Can, they were nice, Morrissey was a thrill. What about you? What's your favourite?
Erm, it's difficult to say really. Grace Jones asked me out on a date during an interview recently.
SR: "Ah, but did you snog her?"
Ah, damn that Miranda Sawyer, she blew my angle out of the water! Hmm. Well, I don't usually get nervous before interviewing people and I got really nervous before interviewing Mark E Smith - to the extent that I spilled a cup of coffee down myself on the train beforehand. I don't know if that is just because his reputation preceded him but I ended up really enjoying myself having a drink with him.
SR: "I did try to track Mark E Smith down but I didn't try that hard if you know what I mean. It was a funny period at the beginning of this decade when they didn't have a record label. I could have tried harder but I was partially thinking ‘I don't need to do this because there are so many interviews with him' but also it was the same thing as with you [laughs] y'know, what's it going to be like interviewing him? His reputation is intimidating. I actually interviewed him once for The Observer for a daft piece on what people with the name Smith were doing for Christmas! I called him up and he was really charming. He was staying with his mother for Christmas and doing lots of homely things like that, rather than your typical Mark E Smith interview."
Out of all The Fallen, as Dave Simpson would call them, why did you choose Martin Bramah?
SR: "Well, I interviewed three people out of the original Fall and Tony Friel was just quite a short email interview and Una Baines is actually going to be appearing with me at a panel in Manchester in February along with [Quietus writer] Mick Middles, the interview was really, really interesting and took place over two separate days, so it was kind of like a sprawl of stuff. I picked the Martin Bramah one because it was more of a shapely structure. He was someone who didn't surpass my expectation but he totally lived up to it; he was such a lovely, likeable, interesting guy who was still passionate about music and all that mystical stuff that The Fall and The Blue Orchids were all about. I didn't interview the second incarnation of The Fall who were probably responsible for the greatest stuff like Hex Enduction Hour and Slates but when you read interviews they never speak, they never seemed to be allowed to get a word in edgeways so it was hard to tell if they'd have anything to tell you!"
Talking about leaving interviewees out, I guess it must have been difficult narrowing down what actually made the final cut?
SR: "I did about 125 interviews and nearly all of them had interesting things about them and there were a good 70 or 80 that could have gone in."
What were the ‘big' names that you left out that maybe people would have expected to have seen?
SR: "I think I used all the big name interviews. I didn't use the interview with Wire because it was a four person interview round a table and it just didn't work as a format because they would be interrupting each other and completing each other's sentences. A lot of people would have expected Wire to be in a book of post punk interviews. Colin Newman is actually going to be part of the Round Table discussion I'm doing in London in February along with Tom Morley, one original members of Scritti Politti. Howard Devoto is perhaps someone who you would think would be in the group."
That's interesting! I was interviewing him last month and it was going quite well until I mentioned your name . . .
SR: "Really! [laughing] What did he say?"
He went really cold on me but I think it was my own fault really. I mentioned your stuff about the importance of Spiral Scratch and suggested that culturally it was a good time for Magazine to be reforming because of all the bands around that had been obviously inspired by them. [One of them being Ipso Facto who are supporting Magazine live.] He became very dismissive and said he didn't do culture anymore. After that he wasn't particularly forthcoming with me to be honest.
SR: "He wasn't terribly forthcoming. I think he's almost got this thing where he likes to be enigmatic or run rings around interviewers or something. He was alright but it wasn't one of the killer interviews. I think he comes off pretty good in Rip It Up . . ., Magazine didn't live up to the hype that was ladled upon them but they did some pretty good stuff and that's acknowledged in the book. I think there's the sense that some people think that Magazine should have been the band that Simple Minds were that although Jim Kerr is incredibly wealthy because he's a canny businessman and he's got all these investments whereas Howard Devoto now works in a picture library and just does music every so often. But there's something to being a legend and not in a Simple Minds type band. The fact that Simple Minds did some really cool records is completely eclipsed by the stadium thing they did. A lot more people know about the cool records that Vic Goddard [Subway Sect] and Howard Devoto did than know that Empires And Dance was a really interesting record. They're actually quite similar in some ways; very Bowie influenced, keyboards really prominent for the time, so, y'know, it works both ways. Not living up to your initial promise works both ways and young hipster alienated people will rediscover your work in perpetuity."
On a different tack altogether, I was blown away by Gerald [Casale] from Devo and especially his reminiscences about the murder of the protestors at Kent State University by the National Guard. I'm not sure where I'm going with this other than to say that I've come to believe that post punk is one of those genres where it really helps to know the theory. For example, when I was a teenager, I didn't really like Devo at all. I didn't get it. But I've been forced to totally reassess how I feel about them since reading about the theory of devolution and interviews with them.
SR: "The funny thing about Devo was at the time they were so opaque about what they were doing, you kind of weren't sure whether they were parodying stuff or if they actually were in favour of all these terrible things. It seemed really terrible in a way; very nihilistic but that was part of the punky thing in the way that ‘Pretty Vacant' was saying we're the brain-dead children of mass consumer society. So when I discovered these [Devo] bleeding heart liberals and guys who had been hippies, it was kind of a surprise! It sort of weakens the ambiguity of their music which seems to be celebrating this decadent, sick, degenerate society to know that they have good souls underneath it all! It also suggests that post punk is closer to the 60s than we are to post punk or something like that. It feels like we've crossed a line and that was all a million years ago. What do you think? How old are you? You're quite a bit younger than me right?"
Hmm, not really I guess. I'm 37 and after synth pop, post punk was the first kind of weird or alternative music that I got into but it was a few years after the fact. I got into it just as it was ending but when I was 13 in 1984, the start of it in 1978 couldn't have seemed any further away. I got into it through a mate's elder brother who had done a Peel Session and had all the Joy Division, Gang of Four and Magazine albums. You know so there are plenty of people in the book that I guess I've got a vested interest in or wish I'd interviewed - even though I have talked to some of them. One person I'm glad I didn't have to interview is David Thomas [Pere Ubu]. I'd always felt like that and this just went to prove that my instinct about him was right. He comes across as pseudo-rockist, authenticity bore, truculent . . . well, lots of things that I dread encountering in interviewees. Or, am I misreading this?
SR: "He was fairly truculent. He's an irascible, er, fellow! I was summoned down to Brighton with little notice so I changed my plans and went down to see him. It was one of the most interesting discussions in that it moved beyond the story of the band and just became an argument about music and American culture and all that. But, at a certain point he just said ‘I'm going to go and talk to my friends,' and walked off! He went and sat with some old geezer who had a dog and I thought ‘Shall I go and tap him on the shoulder and say "I'm off now!"' and I just thought ‘Nah!' It wasn't a very cordial exchange but I'm glad I did it; it was very interesting."
I've noticed that you feel a little bit of antipathy towards the panstick and hairspray antics of the goths but isn't it true that if you removed Pete Murphy's makeup and flatten down Daniel Ash's hair, Bauhaus, for example, are sonically as progressive as Gang of Four. If not more so.
SR: "I kind of admire the whole goth thing in an academic way and the whole thing of dressing up and I always liked that look, especially on women. And my wife [writer Joy Press] actually looked a bit gothy when I first met her in the 80s. But generally I found that the records didn't live up to the image. Bauhaus is the one exception; the guitar is interesting and a few years ago I did review the goth box set on Rhino [A Life Less Lived] which has got this great packaging as a leather bodice and generally I was despondent with the music except with Bauhaus where I noticed stuff I hadn't noticed before, like they had a reggae influence on quite a few songs like ‘She's In Parties' where it actually goes into skank mode. Is that the one?"
Yeah, definitely. It's got a rocksteady bassline and ‘Bela Lugosi's Dead' is the dub reggae influenced one.
SR: "And ‘Kick In The Eye' is the punk funk one. While still not taking them entirely seriously, I still admired them sonically more than I had at the time. I guess at the time the image had dazzled out the sound a little. I actually used to really like ‘Terror Couple Kills Colonel' and ‘Bela Lugosi's Dead' which came out not long after Joy Division and they did feel like they were in the same area to start off with. In the same way that I admired New Romantic culture - I kind of admire the spirit of dressing up, because I've never really had any sense of style myself and often I felt with a lot of those groups the music doesn't match up to the sartorial dimension."
One of the quotes that rang clearest to me was Green Gartside talking about taping John Peel. ("I would tape the Peel shows on a Saturday and for want of anything else to do, I would listen to that tape every night or day until the following weekend. And the thing that stayed with you, I found, was the challenging stuff. The music you found most difficult on the Sunday by the next weekend had become your favourite.") I've been thinking about this a lot recently and as someone who struggles by as a music writer I literally do occasionally have sleepless nights worrying about some aspects of the music industry and where the whole thing is going. And the whole cultural strip mining effects of unabated peer to peer file sharing and the manic catalogue reissue programmes even though the entire market is obviously saturated in music and product. Could we ever have a movement like post punk ever again? Would a young musician ever have the cultural space occurring that people like Green Gartside had to sit round and think about things like they did?
SR: "It doesn't seem like it. It seems like we've gone into this irreversible state of - to use the word you brought up - saturation; which is a word that applies on so many levels. Market saturation, memory saturation, time saturation and the way the culture and technology is going we seem to have bizarre state of affairs where things are going so fast that we're at a standstill. We've got so many distractions that we're bored at the same time. But it's different to the boredom I felt as a kid which was this yawning gulf of empty time and you just had to fill it with something and it might be mischief or you might drift into the dream world of music of the few records that you could own at that time. I feel that music now has become a paradise that's become a hell. I have so many records mainly because I've been collecting for years and because I've been sent things and perhaps I have more than the average person but the thing is now anyone can be in the situation I'm in. Any young person can immediately drown themselves in virtually, absolutely everything. And now there might be something that you're sneakily looking for on the net [laughs] that you might not be able to get hold of but virtually everything that has ever been recorded is out there. And I don't know what kind of consciousness or creative consciousness can survive that kind of inundation. It feels almost like a cultural catastrophe. I mean, obviously, sometimes it's great if I can, say, find some really obscure BBC Radiophonic thing that barely came out at the time but is up there on the web. But at the same time it seems to have gone wrong somehow. It's like getting everything you wished for as a music fan and it turning out to be a terrible nightmare. I don't know, what do you think?"
I think so, yeah. I'm really wary on one hand of coming across like the narrator of a Hovis ad.
SR: "It were all fields round here in the post punk days!"
Exactly! But then I do think that there's something to be said for the lack of access to these bands. I'm not over-exaggerating or romanticising the idea of having to hang out in record shops on the off chance that they might get a copy of Another Green World by Eno in or someone behind the counter might play something that I didn't know like Throbbing Gristle. Or you had to be part of a group of like-minded people who exchanged tapes and that meant discourse and the exchange of ideas as well and was bounded by time constraints etc. Prior to the age of the CD reissue becoming popular there was certainly a disparity between the amount you could read about a band like Wire in the NME (because they never really went out of favour) and the lack of albums (their first three albums at least) you could buy by them. But now I look at my shelves and I own about 13 or 14 Joy Division CDs. Which is ludicrous obviously given that they only released two albums while they were going. But given how revolutionary this music was at the time I guess it's ridiculous to be looking for the true heirs to Joy Division's crown amongst bands like White Lies or Editors - as much as they might love that era musically. Instead, where do you see that spirit now?
SR: "I suppose a lot of it seems to feel a little similar. I wouldn't say that these bands sound the same but perhaps they echo some of the basic processes and orientation toward music and it seems to be going on with all those bands who have a relationship to Animal Collective, like Gang Gang Dance. They have post punk principles and techniques but not any of the same sources so you know you have the same orientation toward current black music with Gang Gang Dance listening to grime and dubstep with a tribal/ethnic influence which is kind of like what The Slits and The Raincoats were doing. There is also the percussive thing that you had in groups like 23 Skidoo that Animal Collective etc have going on. And then there's the blend of traditional rock instruments with electronics which you get with Animal Collective always go on about loving GAS and minimal techno.
"I think of Vampire Weekend of being very post punk in that they own their own recordings - they're from well-off middle class backgrounds so they probably have business minded people in their circle. They bought themselves a touring van and it's very savvy and total control. Vampire Weekend is the entire package; it's all so perfectly planned, the lyrics, the sound, it all connects. They have some sort of manifesto that says they will never be seen on stage or in a photo in a T-shirt. That's totally new pop/post punk, sort of like Orange Juice if Orange Juice actually wrote a manifesto. Their sound has certain sort of elements . . . I think they heard a reggaeton rhythm they liked and they tried to use it but it got adapted and used for something else. ['Oxford Comma']There are definitely some people who sort of have that experimental approach but are still making songs and not going all the way into experimentalism. And a lot of post punk, if you measure it up against a lot of real experimentalism, it's like a half way measure. But that's what's good about it! [laughs] That's why it's enjoyable to listen to because it has songs! It's a bit like My Bloody Valentine; there's a sort of an uber-hipster approach to MBV which says ‘Oh well, you know really they just sound like The Byrds.' But that's what's good about them! That's what draws you in, the gorgeous melodies that combine with this massive wall of sound and more traditional structural elements. That's their achievement really, it's not this colossal weird wall of sound thing. It's always been my suspicion that that [on its own] is probably fairly easy to do! But to do that and make it as songs as well . . .that would be the hard thing."